A Familiar Enemy

George Orwell once made an important distinction between patriotism and nationalism, one that has since been elaborated upon many times by others, notably the quirky but often insightful historian John Lukacs, but that still has not caught on sufficiently, apparently, to have much of an impact on what we might call our national consciousness:

"By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one … has no wish to force upon other people.  Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally.  Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power.  The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unity in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality."

I rather like a simplified version of the distinction, to the effect that patriotism is love of one’s own country or place while nationalism is hatred of or hostility toward some other country or place. Some might also link patriotism to responsibility, in that a patriot loves his country enough to recognize and want to correct its shortcomings, while a nationalist either recognizes no faults (and insists that anyone who does is a traitor) or constructs elaborate justifications for whatever his or her government has done in his or her name. One might note also that patriotism is peaceful until forced into defending oneself, while nationalism is forever spoiling for a fight.

Patriotism is an ancient emotion that most people feel about the place they call home, while nationalism is inextricably tied to the growth of the nation-state beginning in Europe around the 16th century. It may be that we live in the twilight of the nation-state as the primary organizing principle for human beings, but judging by the evidence in the wake of the Georgian-Russian miniwar over the past week-plus, the sentiments associated with nationalism are alive and well and pretty virulent. Nationalism requires endless enemies, and our resident nationalists seemed to relish settling on a once and future bogeyman into which they can sink their rhetorical teeth with great satisfaction, the eternal rival to America for world domination, Russia.

Now there’s little question that there’s a great deal of valid criticism that could be and has been made about Russia in its current manifestation under Vladimir Putin and his protégé Dmitri Medvedev. The hope that the implosion of the communist system would lead to an enthusiastic embrace of free markets and the live-and-let-live attitude that best underpins a free society were dashed early on and have been disappointed repeatedly. State enterprises were not distributed equitably either to the people at large or to the highest bidder, but to cronies who became oligarchs. After the bumbling Yeltsin was succeeded by the far more competent, cold-eyed, and cold-blooded former KGB operative Putin, what emerged is an authoritarian state bolstered by oil revenues, with a strong sense of grievance and a distinctive set of regional ambitions and desire for payback against those who dissed Russia when she was weak during the 1990s.

Not very attractive.

Consequently and perhaps predictably, perhaps the most striking thing about this Russian-Georgian conflict is the extent to which it has unleashed nostalgia for the Cold War, with Russia as the easily identified, easily demonized enemy again. From the Wall Street Journal to the Heritage Foundation to AEI to Bob Kagan writing in the Washington Post, the calls to “do something” about the evil Russians’ aggressions against a valued democratic ally issued plaintively.

Not so fast. As this Register editorial outlines briefly, it isn’t all that clear who the bad guys or aggressors were here. Just as Georgia sees Russia as the neighborhood bully, the smaller separatist provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia see Georgia as the neighborhood bully, and for reasons rooted in history and ethnicity, among other factors, they prefer (at least significant majorities do) to be more closely associated with Russia, perhaps even to be part of Russia.

The timing was surprising, but the conflict wasn’t. Russia felt (and was) dissed when it was weak and chaotic in the 1990s, but now that it’s waxing fat on oil money and has a canny autocrat at the helm, it’s worrying about the “near abroad,” as Russian regimes have for hundreds of years. It’s not necessarily necessary, but Russia has always wanted only neighbors who are friendly or vassals on its border, and the prospect of a state longing to be in NATO, with Saakashvili talking constantly about eventually “retaking” the two provinces that have been de facto independent and allied to Russia (which made all residents Russian citizens) was predictably too much for Russians eager to flex their geopolitical muscles to bear. However it started, the Russians were better prepared (having probably war-gamed it a hundred ways).

However, who rules South Ossetia is hardly a core U.S. interest, so there was no sensible reason for the U.S. to intervene – and besides, it had no way to do so. All the blustering without any concrete way to punish Russia only made Bush and McCain (and to some extent Obama) look silly and exposed how helpless a giant the overstretched imperial power is. And to have the invader of Iraq moralizing about invading sovereign countries? I suspect Bush is so self-righteous he didn’t even notice a contradiction.

A sidelight of this war, which may portend more about the future of warfare than the familiar, 19th-century trope of a country geographically vulnerable to aggression wanting satellites, allies, or supine anti-belligerents along its borders, is the still-disputed extent to which cyber war has become part of the way countries wage war. As early as July 20, Georgian government Web sites were hit by distributed denial of service bot attacks designed to (and to a great extent successfully) force the servers to go down and be unavailable. Is this just harassment, or is it probing to find ways to disrupt military communications and make the adversary blind on the battlefield? Does the fact that Georgia got some help from Estonia, target of an apparently Russian-directed cyber attack some time ago, and Google in getting sites back up and running suggest that defenses are becoming sophisticated enough to neutralize such attacks in the future?

I suspect tentative answers will be forthcoming from people much more technologically sophisticated than I. But there seems to be little question that attacks on the Internet in target countries will increasingly be part of warfare in the near future.

For the United States, however, the major lesson for those of us who would prefer that our country understand the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan by developing a sense of restraint about involving ourselves in predictable and peripheral conflicts on the other side of the world is that the nationalist impulse to want to dictate the outcome of every conflict everywhere is alive and well. From supposed right to supposed left, and perhaps most notably in the supposed center, the arrogant desire to make clear what "must" happen lest the world order fall apart was conspicuous.

I think that this tendency to be ready to be diverted from what a couple of weeks ago was supposed to be the central front against the closest to a real threat the U.S. faces – stateless terrorism capable of significant disruption leading to overreaction that spurs yet more terrorist activity – is yet another sign of inevitable imperial decline as the muscle-bound giant displays an almost complete inability to set priorities. But that may be more wish than reality. The nationalist impulse to seek enemies to fight (or at least to berate) is uncomfortably strong. I anticipate a backlash that deters some future posturing, but I wouldn’t want to bet the homestead on it.

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Author: Alan Bock

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Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).